Gran Torino (review)

Hey You Kids Get Off My Lawn

Oh my god, it’s finally happened: Someone made Hey You Kids Get Off My Lawn: The Motion Picture. It’s a Moving(TM) and Poignant(TM) tale of a crotchety old man who learns the true meaning of something or other. Could be neighborliness. Could be tolerance. Could be surviving in a world in which crotchety-old-man-itude has become a cinematic cliché. It doesn’t matter. The shell of the crotchety old man — who is, underneath, of course, a warm and genuine fella — has been broken. Hoorah!
Someday, we will see the crotchety-old-man movie in which someone finally cracks after days and weeks and months of trying to get through to the alleged creamy chocolately center of a crotchety old man — and failing — and says, “Hey, dude, there’s a reason why you’re a miserable lonely old bastard, and it’s because you’re really not a very nice person at all. Maybe try stopping being such a bigoted close-minded old fart, and you might have an actual friend or two, or at least someone who can tolerate pretending to like you for an hour or two.”

This is not that movie.

This is a disposable made-for-the-Hallmark-Channel melodrama, and it would be dismissed as such if it starred Wilford Brimley as Wilford Brimley, instead of starring Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby, Space Cowboys) as Wilford Brimley. Eastwood’s Walt Kowalkski is, at least, apparently perfect happy to be left alone in the miserable-old-bastard room of his own — as long as the damn kids stay off his lawn, of course. But the rest of the movie refuses to let him stay there, and intends to drag him, via the cheapest, most obvious methods possible, into the sunshine of friendship and love and puppies and ice cream. I’d like to think that the real Clint would have kicked the ass of any movie that tried that on him. Maybe he really is getting old. But Eastwood directed this himself, so you have to assume that things are the way he wants them to be.

But honestly, the minute Gran Torino forces Walt, a former Detroit auto assembly-line worker and Korean War vet, to say things like “Would it kill you to buy American?” — or to actually yell at other characters to get off his lawn — all pretense to integrity and authenticity goes out the window. Did screenwriters Dave Johannson and Nick Schenk mean to be funny, putting such words into the mouth of Clint Eastwood? Is it meant to be some sort of cliché buster to have Dirty Harry himself yell at people about his lawn, like we might actually consider him likely to blow away the neighborhood kids who transgress?

Walt’s neighbors don’t seem to take him seriously, though, so why should we? In fact, teenage Sue (Ahney Her) is right in his face, inviting him to barbecues at her house next door and everything. This totally rattles Walt, because, you know, they’re Asian — Hmong refugees — and don’t they know Walt shot gooks like them during the war?

Now, there’s a certain value in portraying racists as clueless dolts and just laughing at their idiocy, but there’s something about how Walt’s racism is played for laughs here that’s disturbing. It’s meant to be charming: Oh, there goes Grandpa again, ranting against the blacks and the queers and the immigrants — ain’t he adorable? He isn’t: he’s embarrassing.

But Gran Torino is not embarrassed for Walt — he’s the hero here. Not only does it seem extremely unlikely that an 80-year-old man is suddenly going to change his attitudes about, you know, everything because his immigrant Asian neighbors are suddenly nice to him, but it also seems extremely convenient that events in Walt’s neighborhood should transpire to compell him to demonstrate how dramatically his ideas about everything have changed. His beloved titular car is threatened, Walt reacts to that in a way that seems wildly out of character based upon what we know of him to that point… and wal-lah! The crotchety old man starts learning the real meaning of stuff.

I suppose I sound ungenerous: of course people deserve to treated well even if they’re miserable old bastards, and of course it’s never too late to change one’s ways. But I’m talking about life as Hollywood filters it, and the filters here are preposterous. Of course, the reality that there really is no helping some people, no matter how generous one is with them, is too frustrating for The Movies to acknowledge, because it does not make for happy endings. And the lack of a happy ending is somethat that, alas, a movie like Gran Torino cannot countenance.

Watch Gran Torino online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.

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